Book review – Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline

Given that I consider overpopulation to be the mother of all problems and, unfortunately, the elephant in the room that few wish to address, this book immediately drew my attention. Empty planet? Global population decline? Those are not words you often hear when the subject turns to future demographic trends. And yet, these two Canadian authors, Darrell Bricker the CEO of social and opinion research firm Ipsos Public Affairs and John Ibbitson a journalist for Globe and Mail, contend exactly this.

Empty Planet

Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline“, written by Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson, published in Europe by Robinson in February 2019 (hardback, 288 pages)

Empty Planet kicks off with a short history of population growth before a strident attack on demographic doom-mongers. (As an aside, it is surprising that these chapters contain no graphs.) They scoff at the classics, such as Thomas Malthus (see my review of An Essay on the Principle of Population: The 1803 Edition – “wrong” and “hopelessly flawed” in their words), The Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich (“a predictive failure”), and the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth and its update (“a doomsaying blockbuster”). They are equally critical of more recent dispatches of despair, such as Joel Bourne’s The End of Plenty: The Race to Feed a Crowded World. And do not get them started on the predictions of the United Nations Population Division (UNDP). Their medium variant model suggests a plateau of ~11 billion people by 2100, while the high variant model suggests ~17 billion people by 2100 without stabilization in sight. Wrong, wrong, wrong. This is all wrong, say Bricker & Ibbitson.

Why? If you follow this topic, this will not come as a surprise: urbanization and the empowerment and education of women. Those two factors are causing birth rates to plunge around the world to replacement rates (2.1 children per couple) or below. And it is happening much faster than UN forecasts predict. The bulk of the book supports this argument through both a review of the numbers and numerous interviews with academics, public officials, and, on the ground, with men and especially women around the world in Belgium, Korea, Kenya, Brazil, India, China, and other countries.

The overall picture is the same everywhere. When people move to cities, children become a costly liability. With reduced childhood mortality, removal of the influence of nagging families, and religion generally waning, many couples have fewer children and have them later, focusing on education and career instead. But what does emerge from the interviews is that the particulars may differ per country. In Brazil, for example, teenage pregnancies persist, but women stop having children earlier as well and often choose voluntary sterilization when they undergo a caesarean section.

“[…] don’t get them started on the predictions of the United Nations Population Division […] Wrong, wrong, wrong. This is all wrong, say Bricker & Ibbitson”

One of the interesting trends the authors highlight is that the decrease in fertility rate seems to be a one-way street only. Once women become empowered, fertility rates do not rise again (the post-WWII baby boom is considered an unusual blip). After countries have been campaigning for couples to have fewer children (from China’s disastrous one-child policy to India’s “complete families”), some governments are now panicking and pushing pro-child policies. Sweden serves as a case study of how these initiatives are both expensive and not very effective.

Because here is the thing – and this is what Bricker & Ibbitson focus on foremost – there is an economic and social price to pay for declining fertility rates. An ageing (and longer-living!) population that requires pensions and expensive healthcare puts incredible financial pressure on a diminishing, younger workforce. The authors show their progressive side here, arguing that continued immigration is the only solution. Although they are not blind to how it sometimes goes awry, they take Canada as a successful model. At a time when nations around the world are closing their borders and reverting to nationalist and protectionist thinking, the authors rail against the many myths and outright lies that are being spread about immigrants.

“[…] the authors rail against the many myths and outright lies that are being spread about immigrants”

Early in the book, the authors accuse the UNDP and other demographers of “recency bias”, the belief that, because things have gone a certain way in the past, they are bound to go the same way in the future. You could throw this back at them when they assume that fertility rates will continue to decline globally in lockstep with urbanisation. (And, oh my, do they open themselves up for that when on page 113 they write that they believe fertility rates in Kenya will continue to drop “because much of the rest of the world is precedent”.) But I think this is too easy. The impact of female education on fertility rates is well documented and also explainable.

However.

What of the environmental cost? They remain largely mute on this topic, although they are outspoken enough to write in their final chapter that “reducing the size of the human population is the best prescription for protecting the seas” and that “the solution to producing less carbon dioxide might ultimately be producing fewer humans”. Might? Might?

In my opinion, overpopulation is not a problem of the future, of whether we will land at the projected 11 or 17 billion people. It is a problem now. It has been a problem for the last several decades. Empty Planet makes a convincing argument that the world population will likely plateau at 9 billion or so, but that is still more than enough, thank you very much. Already, the planet’s support systems are creaking and we have plenty of signs of an ongoing biodiversity crisis (see e.g. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History), not to mention the impact of climate change (see my review of The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future). And that is with 7.6 billion people of which only a part is affluent.

Empty Planet makes a convincing argument that the world population will likely plateau at 9 billion or so, but that is still more than enough, thank you very much.”

With increasing urbanisation and concomitant affluence, the existing population will put even more pressure on non-renewable resources. To think, as the authors seem to do, that we can safely proceed urbanising because the population bomb has been defused ignores the natural resource crisis. It is not just peak oil anymore. How about peak everything? From mineral resources (see Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering the Planet) to rare earths (see The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns, and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age) to flippin’ sand (see my review of The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization – particularly relevant to urbanisation I would think). It is here I feel the authors suffer a bit from recency bias themselves. Beware the cliff, Bardi would say (see my review of The Seneca Effect: Why Growth is Slow but Collapse is Rapid). Perhaps they chose not to focus on these matters in this book. And from the above quotes it seems we are on the same page. But by barely acknowledging this in Empty Planet, it is easy to come away with the impression that they grossly underestimate just how problematic existing population levels already are.

With that rant off my chest, let there be no mistaking that I think Empty Planet is not an important book, because it is. And perhaps the answer to Coole’s question (see my review of Should We Control World Population?) is “we do not need to, it is already happening”. Though I might not share the authors’ optimism regarding humanity’s future, Empty Planet is convincing, passionately – sometimes controversially – argued, and soundly researched. A thought-provoking book that makes many interesting points, it comes highly recommended if you are interested in matters of demography and overpopulation.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

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Empty Planet paperback, hardback, ebook or audiobook

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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